- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 26, 2014

BALTIMORE (AP) - A judge said Tuesday that he expects to rule “very quickly” on a lawsuit seeking to force Maryland officials to implement an online ballot-marking tool for the blind, a case that could impact other states that don’t use the tool.

Lawyers for the National Federation of the Blind are hoping to have the tool in place in time for November’s elections. Their lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, contends that the state is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act for not using the technology, which they say would safeguard blind voters’ privacy.

During three days of testimony that wrapped up Tuesday, Maryland Assistant Attorney General Dan Friedman argued that officials should not be forced to use something that has not been certified by the Maryland State Board of Elections. And another advocacy group for the blind, the Maryland chapter of the American Council of the Blind, said they think the tool could be vulnerable to hackers.

A board vote in July fell one short of the supermajority needed to certify the tool, and one of the board’s five members was absent. Julia Bernhardt, an assistant attorney general, said there is no evidence Congress intended the Americans With Disabilities Act to trump the state certification of voting technology. She also said the state hasn’t rejected the ballot-marking tool for good and could still vote to certify it in the future.

“It just will not be certified in time for the upcoming election,” Bernhardt said.

Attorneys for the National Federation of the Blind say the tool would help protect the privacy and independence of blind voters. The tool enables a blind or disabled voter to mark a ballot on the Internet using technology on the computer with voice-guidance technology. It also allows voters to double check to make sure they have chosen the candidate they meant to choose. A blind voter who testified in the case noted that she had difficulties with poll workers programing a non-visual key card so she could vote independently and privately.

“They are active and engaged members of our civil society, and they seek to be even more engaged by being able to cast their votes privately and independently through absentee ballots,” said Jessica Weber, an attorney for the plaintiffs, in her closing statement. “They, along with the other plaintiffs, have brought this case to secure the opportunity to participate in the fundamental civic right and responsibility of voting, in the same manner afforded to everyone else.”

The lawsuit is opposed by the Maryland chapter of the American Council of the Blind. Attorneys for the council say the online tool is susceptible to fraud, because they argue that the online ballot-marking tool transmits votes online to a server, where they are vulnerable to hackers, who could potentially penetrate the system and see how everyone voted.

“That is far from being private or independent,” said Robert Stern, an attorney for the council who also contends the tool is not accessible to blind voters.

U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett has said he plans to have a decision by the end of the week.

Nikki Charlson, deputy state administrator at the state elections board, said 16 states currently have an online ballot-marking tool. Only two of those states allow any voter to use the online ballots, she said. Maryland allows any voter to vote by absentee ballot.